Attainment gap fears over new and old Higher exams

NEWLY published exam results for Scotland show a gap in attainment with pupils sitting the new Highers performing better than those who took the existing qualification.

143,000 people await the release of their results, with employment, further education places and long-term career plans hanging in the balance. Picture: PA

There was a 79.2 per cent pass rate for the 107,295 students who sat the new Highers launched by the Scottish Government as part of its Curriculum for Excellence, compared to 76.7 per cent for the 92,555 who took the existing award.

Teaching unions and opposition MSPs expressed concern about a “two-tier” exam system and called for more support from the government when all schools are forced to switch to the new Highers this year.

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The overall figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) showed that pupils have been awarded a record number of Highers after sitting the new qualification for the first time this year.

Figures from the SQA showed that there were a record 156,000 Higher passes this year, up 5.5 per cent on 2014. A total of 107,295 pupils sat the new Highers, with a pass rate of 79.2 per cent.

A further 92,555 pupils sat the existing Highers, recording a pass rate of 76.7 per cent, slightly down on the 2014 pass rate of 77.1 per cent.

However, unions and MSPs highlighted concerns about the gap between the two groups of pupils sitting the exams and called on ministers to provide additional support to schools when the existing Higher is scrapped for the coming academic year.

Jane Peckham, the NASUWT teaching union official for Scotland, said: “I’m note sure what the reasons would be for the higher achievement rate, but we’d be very concerned if we continued to have a two-tier system.

“We need to be pretty vigilant as there is concern that a decision is made and then the government says just get on with it. I’m not sure the support is in place. It’s not been a smooth transition.”

Scottish Labour spokesman Iain Gray said ministers had failed to offer enough support to schools and local authorities which were allowed to chose whether to adopt the new Higher or keep the old qualification this year.

He said: “There are some worries here, though, with pass rates at many levels falling slightly, after a drop in Higher pass rates last year. The gap in attainment between the old and new Highers will raise questions too.”

Scottish Conservative spokeswoman Liz Smith added: “The government must not lose sight of the fact that there is still a significant attainment gap between pupils from poorer and wealthier backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, the SQA said pass rates for the new maths Higher was 70.8 per cent, similar to previous years. Some pupils complained about the level of difficulty of the exam, with the SQA stating that its marking process would take this into account.

“In the new Higher maths exam, the assessment proved to be more demanding than intended and therefore the grade boundaries were reduced”, the SQA said.

Scotland’s education secretary Angela Constance said: “This is another strong performance by Scotland’s young people.”

EIS teaching union general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Pupils and teachers deserve praise for the strong set of exam results that have been achieved across Scotland this year.”